Supreme Court Applies Free-Speech to Internet
Source D. Ohmans
Date 99/05/01/22:45

/* Written 9:48 PM Jan 30, 1999 by in igc:labr.all */
/* ---------- "Supreme Court Applies Free-Speech" ---------- */
Thursday June 26 4:59 PM EDT

Supreme Court Applies Free-Speech to Internet

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuter) - The Supreme Court extended free-speech rights to
cyberspace in a historic ruling Thursday, striking down a federal law that
restricted indecent pictures and words on the Internet computer network.

The nation's highest court dealt the Clinton administration a major defeat
by declaring unconstitutional the law that made it a crime to transmit
sexually explicit material to anyone younger than 18.

The high-profile case marked the first time the Supreme Court granted full
constitutional free-speech protections under the First Amendment to the
giant worldwide network of linked computers used by tens of millions of

The justices by a 7-2 vote ruled that all key parts of the Communications
Decency Act violate free-speech rights, amounting to illegal government

"Notwithstanding the legitimacy and importance of the congressional goal
protecting children from harmful materials, we agree ... that the statute
abridges 'freedom of speech' protected by the First Amendment," Justice
John Paul Stevens said for the court majority in the 40-page opinion.

The law, signed by President Clinton in 1996 as part of a
telecommunications overhaul, barred distribution to minors of indecent or
"patently offensive" materials on the Internet. It provided for fines and
maximum two years in prison.

The law defined indecent as anything that "depicts or describes in terms
patently offensive, as measured by contemporary community standards,
or excretory activities or organs."

The law did not target obscenity or child pornography, which already were
illegal. The Internet indecency law has never taken effect because of the
court battle.

The ruling represented a major victory for the American Civil Liberties
Union (ACLU) and groups representing libraries, publishers and the
on-line industry, which brought the lawsuit challenging the law.

ACLU attorney Stefan Presser said, "Essentially the Supreme Court of the
United States took an idea from the 18th century, that is free speech, and
said it has enduring quality, and will extend into the 21st century,
because government will not be allowed to censor what's on the Internet."

Clinton said he would study the decision, gather people representing
industry, parents, teachers and librarians to review it, and continue to
look for a way to keep children from viewing pornography on the Internet.

"With the right technology and rating systems we can help ensure that our
children don't end up in the red light districts of cyberspace," he said
a statement.

The Supreme Court said the rapidly growing Internet deserved full First
Amendment protection, citing its unique characteristics as a public forum
for the exchange of ideas and information.

The high court rejected arguments that the Internet was similar to the
television and radio industries, where there has been a history of
extensive government regulation and where indecent speech may be

"The (Communications Decency Act) is a content-based regulation of
Stevens said. "The vagueness of such a regulation raises special First
Amendment concerns because of its obvious chilling effect on free speech."

"As a matter of constitutional tradition ... we presume that governmental
regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the
free exchange of ideas than to encourage it," Stevens said.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor agreed
the law was unconstitutional in that it would restrict adults' access to
material they otherwise would be entitled to see.

Writing for the two, O'Connor said they would invalidate the law only in
those circumstances. That part of the court's ruling was unanimous.

But O'Connor said for the two dissenters that she would uphold other
restrictions that prohibited the use of indecent speech in communications
between an adult and one or more minors.

In his statement, Clinton said, "The Internet is an incredibly powerful
medium for freedom of speech and freedom of expression that should be
protected. But there is material on the Internet that is clearly
inappropriate for children ... We must give parents and teachers the tools
they need to make the Internet safe for children."

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